Hoarding toilet paper Vs hoarding food – A behavioural science based perspective
It isn’t a proud moment for humanity. Bad enough our centuries old domination of nature and sense of invulnerability has been challenged by a microscopic virus. Meanwhile leaders are half serious about drinking bleach as a counter to COVID-19. But bizarre as all this sounds what was even more incomprehensible was one particular behavioural phenomenon — people were hoarding not just food or medicines but toilet paper. Infact they were fighting each other in the aisles to secure toilet paper !
Left scratching your head? Why?
To generate a hypothesis and outsource blame back to nature we need to go back a few million years.
When we design Behaviour change communication campaigns we come across strange maladaptive behaviours all the time. All of us are guilty of indulging in behaviours that are irrational and often counterproductive, even when we know that it is going to harm us for example smokers continue smoking although they know the risks, we don’t wash our hands with soap although it could lead to serious consequences and so on and so forth. The fundamental question is why do we do what we do? What drives human behaviour?
Behavioural science tells us that during the evolutionary process the brain evolved three distinct mechanisms of behavioural control –
Reactive behaviour that works like a reflex. It creates almost instantaneous responses like flinching from a flame.
Motivated behaviour — Nature evolved psychological mechanisms called motives to help us make the right choices over an evolutionary time scale and help our species to reproduce and survive. These are irrational and emotive in nature rather than logical and measured. So don’t feel bad about doing seemingly stupid things like binge buying at a sale. That is simply the hoard motive which nudges squirrels to stow away nuts for the winter operating within you! Infact there are 15 fundamental domain motives that drive our behaviour. This is the reason that communication that is designed to inform and educate people gets an acknowledgement but often no real change in actual behaviour.
The third mechanism is the Executive and planning behaviour — This is the mechanism that allows us to plan, evaluate, imagine alterative futures and consequences to look beyond immediate reactivity. This often kicks in we are motivated and want to act on our motivations like setting up an alarm clock before we go to the gym.
So now that we know what mechanisms actually orchestrate our behaviour. Let us look at the specific motives that are triggered in the pandemic context.
‘Hoard’ is the motive that pushes us to stock up for an uncertain future. This is what makes birds cache seeds. Often this motive triggers an exaggerated response to insure us from the unforeseeable future. It reduces the risk of shortages and enables us to have longer range concerns. This for example makes us stock up food and medicines, vital to our long term survival.
But then, why toilet paper?
That brings us to the ‘Disgust’ motive. This is the motive that enables us to avoid invisible pathogens. It drives avoidance of hurt from within threats — sick others, spoilt food, disease vectors and pathogen contamination. Disgust is what makes us go yuck and avoid yucky or potentially dangerous things. Situations where we are more immune compromised or at a greater danger of getting ill like an epidemic heightens this motive for example pregnant women are likely to feel a greater sense of disgust during the first trimester. This could also cause us to increase washing and cleaning during epidemics.
Therefore it is only comprehensible from a behavioural science perspective that we would want to hoard food, medicines and hygiene related products like hand sanitizers. Toilet papers are intimately linked to hygiene and disgust because of the nature of faeces and its linkage to diseases hence the need to hoard it is probably amplified even more unaturally.
Don’t think people are just being nutty. They are just being puppeteered by the ‘Disgust’ and ‘Hoard’ motives.
These are the kind of amazing tools that behavioural science gives us to understand and grapple with maladaptive behaviours and save lives, whether they are increasing hand washing with soap, reducing open defecation or ensuring safe water drinking practices.
References and related links
(Using the nurture and disgust motive to increase HWWS) http://appliedwonder.in/our-work/superamma-2/
(Status and SWDP) http://appliedwonder.in/our-work/tdu-tamras-2/
(Disgust to change hygiene behaviour) http://appliedwonder.in/our-work/vikram-aur-vetmal/